Novel about race, class and fame
I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, and gosh did I take a long time to get around to reading it. I’m not quite sure why, but I picked it up from my to-read pile, thumbed through a page or two, the put it back down more times than I can count. By the time I did read it, it was well past the publication date.
“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is a novel about an unnamed biracial narrator who grows up in a London housing estate with her mother, who has Jamaican heritage, and her white father. Obsessed with black and white dance musicals, the narrator takes lessons at a community dance class where she meets another biracial girl called Tracey. Despite living in the same disadvantaged area, the narrator’s autodidact mother is scornful of Tracey, her white mother and her absent father. Nevertheless, Tracey and the narrator become fast friends, united by location and a love for dance (although Tracey is far more talented). As the narrator grows up, she gradually loses touch with Tracey and eventually becomes the personal assistant for a white, narcissistic pop star called Aimee. When Aimee decides on a whim to build a school in a West African country, the narrator is the one left to implement the plan. Although growing up black and disadvantaged by British standards, the narrator is initially unprepared for life in West Africa, and struggles to connect with the people that they are trying to help. As time goes on, the narrator’s relationship with her parents, Aimee and Tracey begin to bleed together and become more and more fraught.
This is a complex and ambitious book that tackles issues of race, class, fame and identity. Smith is clever not to ever name the narrator, because I think one of the overwhelming themes in this book is how much she lives her own life and how much is spent in the shadow of Tracey, Aimee and her own mother. Smith effectively uses the contrast between the housing estate and the West African village to explore the extremes of living as a biracial person. I also thought that she brought a unique perspective to what life must be like working for a famous person, and how mercurial a lifestyle that must be. Smith is a strong writer and it is certainly a readable book.
There is no question that Smith covers a range of interesting issues in her book, but I think that as a whole, this book was missing a uniting factor. I get that part of the narrator’s problem is that she is a bit lacking in personality and relies on anchoring to other people to help propel her through life. However, where the narrator should have been the one connecting the experiences of being a friend, a personal assistant and a daughter, she ultimately just wasn’t engaging enough as a character to bring the whole story together. I think if the story had been just about having a troubled best friend, or just an overbearing mother, or just a egocentric boss – it might have been able to firm up and tease out the narrative a bit more. However, as it is, the narrator just feels a bit like a leaf in the breeze and just a little too complacent about where her life goes to be able to find any meaning.
A well-written book that tackles a lot of interesting issues that ultimately doesn’t have the connecting factor to propel the story.